One of my favorite leadership reads today is the book Tribal Leadership, by Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright.
The authors suggest that organizations are composed of natural “tribes” of about 20-150 people who are bound together by a common culture. Their research suggests that tribes can be characterized by five distinct sets of behaviors. Here is a synopsis:
Stage 1 (2% of organizations)
Mood: “Life sucks”
The theme “Life Sucks” runs the show in criminal clusters, like gangs and prisons, where people act out in despairingly hostile ways. The feeling is that the world conspires against us, and we are mainly hopeless to overcome this reality. This stage is dominated by mistrust. (While I have never seen a full tribe like this, I have met individuals who seem to project these ideas and behaviors.)
Stage 2 (25% of organizations)
Mood: “My life sucks”
This stage says, in effect, “my life stinks,” and the mood is a cluster of apathetic victims trapped in a Dilbert-like workplace with bosses they do not respect, and no identification with corporate goals or mission. People in this stage are passively antagonistic; crossing their arms in judgment yet never getting interested enough to spark much passion. Their laughter is quietly sarcastic, resigned.
Stage 3 (50% of organizations)
Mood: “I’m great (and you’re not)”
Feeling: Satisfaction through Personal Achievement
Actions: Useful (1:1)
In this culture, it is ALL ABOUT ME. We derive satisfaction from personal achievement, and winning. This is seldom a team sport. People feel that knowledge is power, and they hoard it, from client contacts to gossip. They’ll out-work, think, and maneuver their competitors. They feel that the rest of the organization seldom provides the support needed for them to win. Others seem to be engrossed in their issues, not mine. What holds people at Stage 3 is the “energy” they get from winning, gaining personal recognition, and being the smartest and most successful.
Stage 4: (22% of organizations)
Mood: “We’re great (and they’re not)”
Feeling: Stable Partnership
Actions: Important (Team)
This stage is the place where people feel that it is largely though team collaboration that success comes (rather than from individual achievement). These organizations talk a lot about core values that are connected to a “noble purpose”. Such organizations make decisions based on values and derive satisfaction by being a part of a truly awesome tribe. Stage 4 groups and the tribal leaders in them focus people on their aspirations, and define measurable ways to achieve greatness.
What I have been thinking about is the massive philosophical leap it takes to go from Stage 3 to 4. When I was at Google (a Stage 4 organization) I asked a manager about how they concluded that it made business sense to provide so much freedom and spend so much money on the fabled Google perks. The response was “that’s just the way we think businesses should be run”. It was as if to say “if you have to ask about the business case for it, then you don’t really ‘get it’”.
Stage 4 tribes seem to be so as a matter of faith.
Making decisions based on values is not so natural for us. (Generations of MBA-educated execs were trained to think decision-making should be a data-driven rational process, not one overly influenced by emotions – which is how many feel about values. Such executives are happy to have a set of values – but they are in a separate compartment disassociated from business cases and rational decision-making.)
But when we do not use values to make decisions, such decisions ultimately have little meaning and serve even less purpose. Imagine for a moment that HONESTY was one of your team’s core values. Now consider a case where you have problematic employee (who has questionable tendencies, continually undermines morale, and is highly distracting to others). Suppose he was finally caught falsifying an expense report in the amount of $250. What would you do? Most people would say that the employee should be terminated. Now suppose the offending employee is your absolute best performer, who was caught falsifying her resume. Would that be a values violation? Many people would say no. And yet if HONESTY is the value… there is no question that it is a violation.
Stage 3 thinking values the stellar contributions of individuals, whereas Stage 4 thinking says that no one person is that vital to our success and that preserving the good of the TRIBE is what matters. Stage 4 thinking says that CULTURE is everything, that CULTURE and VALUES drive the performance that makes great business results. (That is the amazing leap of faith that most executives cannot completely embrace.)
At the end, however you might answer these questions comes down to faith and beliefs. Not everyone is ready to embrace the full meaning and consequences of Stage 4. It is worth thinking about.
Here is David Logan at TED, talking about Tribal Leadership: